What is it like to be poor? Thankfully, most Americans do not know, at least not firsthand. And times are tough for the middle class. But everyone needs to recognize a chilling reality: One in three Americans — 100 million people — is either poor or perilously close to it.
The Times’s Jason DeParle, Robert Gebeloff and Sabrina Tavernise reported recently on Census data showing that 49.1 million Americans are below the poverty line — in general, $24,343 for a family of four. An additional 51 million are in the next category, which they termed “near poor” — with incomes less than 50 percent above the poverty line.
As for all of that inspirational, up-by-their-bootstrap talk you hear on the Republican campaign trail, over half of the near poor in the new tally actually fell into that group from higher income levels as their resources were sapped by medical expenses, taxes, work-related costs and other unavoidable outlays.
The worst downturn since the Great Depression is only part of the problem. Before that, living standards were already being eroded by stagnating wages and tax and economic policies that favored the wealthy.
Conservative politicians and analysts are spouting their usual denial. Gov. Rick Perry and Representative Michele Bachmann have called for taxing the poor and near poor more heavily, on the false grounds that they have been getting a free ride. In fact, low-income workers do pay up, if not in federal income taxes, then in payroll taxes and state and local taxes.
Asked about the new census data, Robert Rector, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation told The Times that the “emotionally charged terms ‘poor’ or ‘near poor’ clearly suggest to most people a level of material hardship that doesn’t exist.” Heritage has its own, very different ranking system, based on households’ “amenities.” According to that, the typical poor household has roughly 14 of 30 amenities. In other words, how hard can things be if you have a refrigerator, air-conditioner, coffee maker, cellphone, and other stuff?
The rankings ignore the fact that many of these are requisites of modern life and that things increasingly out of reach for the poor and near poor — education, health care, child care, housing and utilities — are the true determinants of a good, upwardly mobile life.
Government surveys analyzed by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities indicate that in 2010, just over half of the country’s nearly 17 million poor children, lived in households that reported at least one of four major hardships: hunger, overcrowding, failure to pay the rent or mortgage on time or failure to seek needed medical care. A good education is also increasingly out of reach. A study by Martha Bailey, an economics professor at the University of Michigan, showed that the difference in college-graduation rates between the rich and poor has widened by more than 50 percent since the 1990s.
There is also a growing out-of-sight-out-of-mind problem. A study, by Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford, shows that Americans are increasingly living in areas that are either poor or affluent. The isolation of the prosperous, he said, threatens their support for public schools, parks, mass transit and other investments that benefit broader society.
There are serious implications of poverty...beyond the four criteria listed:
- failure to pay the rent or mortgage on time or
- failure to seek needed medical care.
- and a fifth...out of reach college education
- When we fail to notice that we are not educating all of our children, and
- when we fail to notice that we are not feeding all of our children
- when we fail to notice that we are counting on government data to paint pictures of the gestalt that is overtaking our culture
- when we permit the rhetoric of experts to substitute for what we know as "shared knowledge" (see John Ralston Saul in Equilibrium)
- when we prefer to move from crisis to crisis without stopping to examine the root causes of gangs, drug abuse, family violence, lack of concentration by students, drop-out rates, lawlessness, even preventable illness and death
- when we prefer to stampede through open doors of retail box stores at midnight on Black Friday than to contemplate how we might offer life in gifts to the starving (see UNESCO Christmas Catalogue)
With over 7 billion people, growing in the next two decades to 9 billion, increasingly using demographics to grapple with our grasp of the complex situations faced by those without enough, we are increasingly risking a world of merely a superficial grasp of the depths of the pain and consequently permitting consideration of merely a superficial band-aid to cover that open, infected and terminal sore.
We love band-aids, especially ones that are accompanied by fanfare, media attention and short-term fixes.
We despise reality checks that point to unsustainable trends, requiring that we all go to the top of the waterfall to determine why the children are falling in, rather than pulling them out at the bottom en masse.
We are a culture of crisis band-aids, make-up industries, make-believe illusionists and political deceivers, whose primary deception is one of self-deception. They know it; we know it; and nothing is done about it. And the great Houdini's of the culture, the economists, are given the 72-point headlines, because in that way we believe we are truly facing the demons that beset us.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Theirs is merely a metaphysical, theoretical construct of equations, formulae and high-sounding rhetoric. We need some ordinary common sense, not the sort that populists parade before us to seduce us into voting for them (see Michael Harris of Ontario infamy in the 1990's) but the sort that
passes between ordinary people in coffee shops, pubs and athletic events. We need real people with a real sense of the pain that we are all causing by both our reliance on the experts, and our reliance on a failed process of symptom addiction as opposed to rooting out and attending to root causes that cannot and will not fit into those tiny boxes of band-aids, nor the tiny boxes of our complacency and apathy.
It is not only the Liberal Party of Canada that needs a wake-up call; we all do. And the sooner we hear that bell, the sooner we will at least start talking about what is causing those kids to fall into the deadly waters and perhaps then we might start replacing band-aids, and crisis interventions for some truly effective long-range solutions, based on a foundation of shared knowledge, compassion and even empathy for each other.
It is really not rocket science, and that is its principal problem; because it is so ordinary, we pay it no notice.